There’s an argument going on in the UK right now about re-introducing grammar schools. Until the 1960s, grammar schools were a selective tier of the secondary system. Everyone took exams at the age of eleven, and the most academically able were selected to go to these schools, the purpose of which (everyone understood) was to enable people to go to university. Those who did not pass were essentially out of luck as far as further education went: their choices were circumscribed by the time they were eleven. Germany and some other central European countries still operate on this basis. For some reason, the current government thinks it’s a good idea to go back to that system.
Like many others, I think it’s wrong for the education system to filter people at an early age. Among other things, streaming – or any rationing by ability, really – is inevitably classist. Yes, some poor kids will get through and get “a good education” and by some people’s lights this makes selection an “engine of mobility”. But far more are consigned to the loser bin at an early age. And that’s not good: you can’t ask the education system to kill people’s dreams off at such an early age.
But here’s the question: if not then, when? Should the education ever say no to someone’s dreams?
We used to say “no” to people a lot. We used to fail out a lot of kids from high school and that was OK, because hey, we had to have standards (I note with interest that Ken Coates and Bill Morrison, in their new book Dream Factories, have taken to calling near-universal high school completion rates an obvious example of “dumbing down”. Nice.) We used to restrict entry to university a lot. Heck, 30 years ago we had fewer than half the number of students we had today, and the median student today would have had trouble accessing university in the late 1980s. In some parts of Europe, even though they have so-called “open” admissions systems (everyone who passes the exit examination of the top-secondary school stream, such as the baccalaureat or the abitur) it remains policy to fail out large numbers of students after first year who “can’t handle the work” – that is, say yes, then say no.
To a considerable degree, widening access is about learning how not to say no to people. But to some extent this just puts off the day of reckoning, because after education comes the labour market and the labour market is under no obligation to say “yes” to anyone. There are more people who want to be professors than there are tenure-track jobs, more people wanting to be lawyers (crazy but true) than there are positions at law firms, more teacher-wannabes than teaching positions. “No” comes, eventually, at least for some.
Now some people will argue that because the labour market says “no”, the education system also needs to say no – especially when it comes to professional schools. To these people, the expansion of law school (or Master’s degrees in education, take your pick) is a travesty. All those people paying for an education which doesn’t necessarily bring in a huge rate of return? What we need to do is reduce the number of incoming students so as to raise average rates of return! (There is a similar argument with doctoral students: there are never going to be enough academic jobs for these students, so why let them in in the first place)?
I get that argument, but to me it doesn’t wash any more than early selection washes. Yes, there are more wannabe lawyers and teachers than available positions. But why should anyone but law firms and schools be the ones who say no? Why should higher education institutions be the gate-keepers? Until you’ve actually given people a chance to succeed at a professional school, how would you know who the best lawyers/teachers will be anyway? And how, in practice, will institutional gate keeping not simply re-introduce the class-based outcomes?
The only legitimate argument in favour of limiting enrolment, it seems to me, is if public money is at stake. At some point, a government which feels it is not getting a good return on its investment because graduates are not getting jobs would be within its right to stop funding new places. But if students are spending their own money, as they do for law school, why should anyone want to stop students from spending their own money to pursue their desired career?
Yes, consumers need to be protected from mis-selling, obviously; institutions shouldn’t be allowed to mislead people about the odds of someone eventually saying “no”. But other than that, the moral case for institutions as gate keepers isn’t much better than that for bringing back grammar schools.